Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Blowing the whistle on gay commitment

The New Yorker magazine recently sponsored a contest for an "updated" version of its venerable mascot, Eustace Tilly - and a "gay" version, or maybe "gay leather" version, is at left (the original Eustace is below). The contest has inspired a small dust-up between reigning gay Internet queens Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan, who draw different conclusions from the image - and its subject's notably unenthusiastic consideration of a wedding ring.

For once, however, Sullivan's claws were definitely in, not out. This is all he said on his blog about the cartoon:

Suspended between the past and the future, like the rest of us.

Savage still managed to take this the wrong way, in a big way:

Hmph. Any fool can see what Sullivan means by that crack: Gay Eustace, in his leather vest, cap, arm bands, gloves, and dog collar, looks down his nose at a gold band. Gay Eustace contemplates the wedding ring and the future it represents, a future characterized by family and commitment. The leather gear Gay Eustice wears, of course, represents a past characterized by promiscuity and sexual excess. When Sullivan asserts that Gay Eustace is suspended between the past and the future, between the wedding band and the leather gear, he is arguing that commitment and dog collars are mutually exclusive. To move into the former you must, Sullivan would have us believe, unbuckle the latter.

But fear not, fanciers of canine couture! Savage goes on:

That is not the case. A man, gay or straight, can wear a wedding band and enjoy all it symbolizes—commitment, stability, family—and wear the fetishized skins of dead animals if that appeals to him. In fact, we should encourage him to do so.

If we want to strengthen the institution of marriage—and that is what all in the gay family values movement want (although I’m starting to have my doubts about Mr. Sullivan)—we must fight with every tool at our disposal the pernicious notion that marriage, by definition, must always and everywhere signify the death of sexual experimentation and adventure. A man, gay or straight, can be married and trot about Manhattan in a dog collar, if it pleases him and his spouse. And he should be able to do [so] without the depth or sincerity of his commitment being called into question . . .Sexual dissatisfaction and boredom are frequently cited by divorcing couples as a factor in their decision to split up. If we wish to stem the tide of divorce, Mr. Sullivan, we should not promote the idea that life presents us with an either/or choice between wedding bands and leather outfits in appallingly bad taste. We should make singles and couples, gay and straight, aware that they can have their commitments and their sexual adventures too.

Full disclosure: My boyfriend and I are going to IML this year.

Okay, so Savage isn't exactly a disinterested party in the debate. But then who is? I was struck by this little imbroglio and how it corresponded to the tricky politics of Blowing Whistles, which got at least one pan from a gay critic that read as slightly hysteric self-defense. In the play, the lead character, Jamie, has agreed to a somewhat-open relationship with his partner, Nigel, in which they share threesomes with the agreement that neither is ever to pursue said dalliance further than one night. But over the course of Pride weekend, Jamie faces up to the fact that Nigel can't live up to his half of the bargain: after we see Jamie hang on (just barely) to the agreement in the face of severe temptation, we learn that Nigel has, in fact, been shagging everything that's not nailed down, just as Jamie had feared. And Jamie walks out.

That, of course, is the story of one relationship. But stories like these tend to represent archetypes almost automatically on stage, and the two gay critics who wrote on Blowing Whistles both perceived it, to varying degrees, as a condemnation of gay promiscuity. Which left neither very comfortable.

I wasn't too surprised by these responses. I have to admit, Blowing Whistles is the first "gay play" I've ever read that pondered sexual freedom critically at all, even though such liberty has long been criticized in hetero culture, and gays have often claimed their eventual goal was to be enfranchised in said culture. Some have argued (from both sides of the political fence, as it were) that the "gay agenda" is, or should be, to actually transform the culture of heterosexual commitment. (This sentiment, in more bigoted form, is what often moved beneath the debate on gay marriage.) And indeed, Todd savages the larger, ditzily-libertarian culture that the indulgence of gay sexual license has produced; when he ridicules the "pages and pages of whores" that fill up the back end of gay magazines, he might as well be talking about any number of alternative Boston papers and sites, and the commercial culture they represent, which is hardly supportive of monogamy - not even "open" monogamy. And how is the average critic (many of whom get their paychecks from that culture) going to react to such a statement? My guess is, not too sympathetically.

But some folks from a local chapter of Boston Bears, at least, seemed to feel differently on opening weekend. They watched the show quite quietly - I could feel them bristle at times, as it were - but also with conflicted sympathy. And why shouldn't they? Blowing Whistles is one of the few plays I've read that deal with the issues of my life as I live it; I don't generally have to deal with Hollywood power brokers, or seraphim crashing through my ceiling. But as anyone who's been in a long-term gay relationship knows, fear, recrimination, and betrayal are always very much a possibility, and it's simply silly to pretend otherwise, or avoid open treatment of gay life onstage and retreat into standard martyr-hero-or-sidekick schtick.

As for Dan Savage (and Andrew Sullivan) - I suppose it's possible to construct on a blog a vision of a loving couple that constantly fucks other people - but something tells me that on stage this would never fly; indeed, theatrically, Dan and his partner could never do better than a laugh line on Saturday Night Live and its multiplex offspring. And the idea that one can demand the respect due commitment in society, while reconfiguring that commitment offline (or rather on line) into something else entirely, is, at best, pretty bogus. Respect and promiscuity tend to be odds - or, as Harvey Fierstein put it decades ago, "nobody marries a slut." Except, of course, another slut. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But can't we at least stop pretending, as Nigel puts it in the play, that we can have our cock and eat it, too?


  1. This is almost entirely off-the-point, but on the Orchestra ListServ (whose many subscribers are conductors as well as instrumentalists and composers), they're always mulling over critical comments and getting wise about them. Today, a composer from Louisville posted this critic critique: ......"Regarding the first review of my piece from our local critic, who is not capable of giving an unqualified compliment, this review is the equivalent of extreme praise. I chuckled particularly at said critic's saying I had written a "modest, skillfully written score," since I recall that he termed a solo performance of mine, some years ago as a "modest
    astonishment." (I'm still not sure just what that is.) Mr Bonfiglio [[a Brazilian harmonica virtuoso who's doing a bit of novice conducting at the upcoming concert, -RB]] should prepare for some description of his playing, later this week, as 'mildly breathtaking' or 'nearly amazing.' (Sigh)."

  2. Hey Robert -

    Thanks for the comment! It's interesting, now that almost everyone has clocked in on Blowing Whistles who's going to, to note that the critcs have wildly disagreed about it - which probably indicates that it is, indeed, at the leading edge of the culture. Each of the actors has been proclaimed, in turn, the best of the trio (they're all strong, just in different ways, so that's no surprise), and my direction has been either praised as "excellent" or derided as "soapy." What moves behind these divergent claims is an unsettled sense regarding the play itself and its challenges - after all, what is a critic to make of a text that seems to be, by turns, a light comedy, a social satire, and a polemic, and which is directed in accordance with each separate mode? It's obvious that Blowing Whistles constitutes an interesting interpretive challenge - still, a critic who is simply always negative is one thing; a critic who can't figure out what he or she is seeing (but pretends they can) is something else again.